By Seid Hassan, Abu Girma, and Minga Negash
“Torturing, putting people in dark rooms, mutilation of prisoners’ body parts is our (i.e., EPRDF’s) act of terrorism. These unconstitutional acts have been done in every kebele, woreda and zone… There were serious mistakes… There were reasons enough (for the Ethiopian people to put us in prison): the robbery, murder, theft were there. I have apologized [to the Ethiopian people] and asked for forgiveness, while sitting down here with you … The compassionate people of Ethiopia have forgiven us. … The people also showed their mercy not in words but in their acts.” [Excerpts taken from a Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s speech given to the Parliament, June 18, 2018.]
Ethiopia is on the eve of transition. After years of repression and violence, Ethiopians are now navigating through unknown waters of opportunities and uncertainties. Recent measures taken by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed such as releasing political prisoners, opening up the press, and extending invitations to opposition groups and political parties for dialogue are necessary goodwill steps to create a conducive environment of trust and engagement. The rapid and breath-taking changes and reform intentions have raised the chances of successful a post-conflict transition.
These steps are critically important to set the process in motion for establishing the institutional foundation that can ensure the implementation of the reform packages and achieving the objectives of creating a democratic, peaceful, dynamic, and prosperous Ethiopia. Ushering in the new transition, however, requires strong leadership, vision, wisdom, heart, patience, humbleness, and collective determination by Ethiopians both at home and abroad.
Old Habits Die Hard:
Post-conflict transitions are often faced with multifaceted challenges and pressures. Embracing the new in place of the old always involves resistance not only from those who have vested interest to keep the status quo but also from passive supporters because the new is a strange fellow and comes with risk. The experience of the last 30 to 50 years in Ethiopia has had a dehumanizing effect on all of us and it has become almost our second nature to be suspicious and excessively pessimistic on a broad set of issues. Besides the apparent sources of resistance towards a new transition, converting us from passive supporters to active promoters of change takes a considerable leap of behavior and firm determination of shared responsibility.
Recognizing its long-term importance, we are required to learn how to love and forgive, but not forget, not only our neighbors but also our oppressors. Taking lessons from other post conflict transitions, many argue that reconciliation without truth, justice, and social justice is impossible. Forgiveness is hard for anybody but especially for Ethiopians who have suffered for so much for so long under repressive and violent systems of all stripes. However, it is prudent to see the larger picture. We should remind ourselves that people often do not like to change things that they have been very accustomed to and making sure all Ethiopians hop up on the wagon of change and engage in inclusive transition remains extremely important.
The principles, values, modality, speed, and consistency as well as implementation capacity simultaneously exert influence on the process and outcome of the transition process from the old to the new era. We cannot afford to be gradualist since the transition process faces strong pressures from several directions in favor as well as against the proposed reforms and transition. Ethiopia and its new leaders, therefore, find themselves in a stressful stage of delivery and usher in a new era of inclusive transition.
Despite all the odds and challenges, it is evident that the hope and aspiration of the Ethiopian public have risen tremendously which in turn serves as a seed capital for genuine reforms. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has done a remarkable job in articulating his views and sharing with the public the underlying principles and rationale for the policy reform measures. He has also provided clear narratives and arguments why we need Ethiopian solution to Ethiopian challenges in designing and implementing policies and strategies. Both clarities of principles and pragmatism are powerful instruments for an inclusive transition.
The Prime Minister enjoys a receptive audience both at home and abroad and yet his main detractors are within the EPRDF whose tradition and practices were built on secrecy, centralism, coercion and a worn out ideological dogma. It is evident that peaceful and smooth transition might break up this tradition for good but ultimately benefits even those who are blind-sided by their immediate stakes and vested interests. Embracing the spirit of transition demands upholding the values of truth and reason. For this purpose, it is important to mobilize the support and engagement of all Ethiopians in the process in search of national identity and constitutional values that institutionalize the reform measures.
Perspectives on Sustainable Transition:
Ethiopians both at home and abroad have called for and deliberated on the conditions for and the necessary ingredients for a peaceful political transition in the country. There are several ways and means that a country could transition itself, each of which with its own appeals, goals, and risks. The sustainable transition should include institutional reforms that would enshrine the rule of law and finally replace the repressive policies with strong pillars of democratic institutions. In this context, Ethiopian civic organizations have made notable contributions by creating the forum for Ethiopian intellectuals to address long-term political, social, economic, geopolitical challenges of Ethiopia and shared their realistic alternatives, reform ideas and policies.
Vision Ethiopia, for instance, in collaboration with other civic organizations and the media (ESAT) has organized a series of conferences that addressed the critical issues of transition, institutional building, and reforms in the political, social and economic spheres. The themes of the conferences included ways of establishing the principles of peaceful and smooth transitions towards genuine democracy and sustainable economic, political, and social development in Ethiopia. These conferences were able to attract notable Ethiopian intellectuals, politicians, and human rights activists who shared with the wider public their respective carefully thought out perspectives and solutions on the current and long-term critical challenges facing Ethiopia.
Whereas the theme of transition and the institutional factors necessary for their implementation are widely considered, there are several important points that require further careful reflections and reexaminations. Here we address three issues. First, it is important to manage effectively the issues of reconciliation and the legitimate demands for documenting truth and the articulation of social justice in the context of Ethiopia. A thorough analysis and deliberation are required to bring about lasting solution and to close the unfortunate chapter of widespread suffering inflicted upon innocent Ethiopians. Second, it is time to clarify the legitimate mandates that a transitional government or arrangement is empowered to exercise during the transition period. The central issue is not power sharing but creating a reliable mechanism to ensure a successful transition. Transition matters and processes may require institutional arrangements of an inclusive transitional government or a parallel independent council. Third, major economic and political policy changes requiring constitutional amendments, such as the privatization of major public enterprises and the methods of dealing with political party affiliated economic entities may need to be addressed in post-transition setting under the aegis of duly elected officials. These are investments in our political institutions with long-term rewards and hence should not be settled for the sake of expediency. It is in this context that we believe it is prudent to separate the issues that are the order of priority for the transitional arrangement. The remaining set of issues should be addressed by a duly, freely, and fairly elected government.
Ethiopia faces considerable challenges and prospects for initiating a smooth and sustainable process of transition from a repressive system to a new democratic, peaceful, inclusive, and sustainable one, in which the rule of law and accountability are enshrined. The transition involves formidable challenges that require the support of all Ethiopians both at home and abroad. Investing the political capital of popular support for reform is critical and requires setting priorities in order to make the transition towards sustainable democracy a reality. It is encouraging to note that a dynamic and articulate leadership has come forward and we are increasingly confident that, despite the hurdles, the dawn of democracy is within our grasp. The stakes are so high and unique that we must not fail. We must do our best, both individually and collectively, in order to realize our wishes and dreams. We owe it to our children and to our beloved country.
By Seid Hassan, Abu Girma, and Minga Negash